“I do worry if being a pundit is a worthwhile thing to be,” she says. “Yeah, I’m the unlikely cable news host. But before that I was the unlikely Rhodes scholar. And before that I was the unlikely kid who got into Stanford. And then I was the unlikely lifeguard. You can always cast yourself as unlikely when you’re fundamentally alienated in your worldview. It’s a healthy approach for a commentator.”
Before the network hired Maddow, MSNBC had started to seem like a fight club, where hosts regularly sniped at each other on-air (Keith Olbermann telling his gushing Republican colleague Joe Scarborough to “get a shovel”), made sexist comments (Tucker Carlson saying he “involuntarily crossed his legs” whenever Hillary came onscreen), and fueled rumors of power struggles in the press (one of which involved the hiring of Rachel Maddow).
Maddow first came on MSNBC’s radar in 2005, when she auditioned as a foil for the conservative Tucker Carlson’s show. Bill Wolff, Carlson’s producer at the time, was immediately smitten. “She was unbelievably prepared,” he said. “And she just killed him.”
She bobbed around as a guest commentator for three years, appearing as a regular guest on Carlson’s show, but also on Paula Zahn’s and Larry King’s. At one point, she filmed a pilot for a weekend political show with CNN. “She seemed really constrained there,” says a person involved in the program. “It was like they didn’t know what to do with her.” The pilot never went anywhere. CNN president Jon Klein says it was because having an “obviously liberal” host didn’t fit with the mission of the network: “It’s like, you wouldn’t put The Sopranos on Comedy Central.”
Still, she kept at it. “I think deep down, Rachel knows that this is something she has to do,” says her former radio co-host Chuck D. “She kind of looks at the television and thinks, I know that’s something I have to do well. Sometimes it’s not up to you.”
Her break came when Carlson’s show was canceled last year and Olbermann asked her to appear more frequently on Countdown. He admired the way Maddow had excoriated Carlson on his own turf, punctuating her arguments with a friendly laugh, like an athlete offering her hand to the loser after a winning game. “We were friends from the start,” says Olbermann. “Our worldviews overlap.”
Olbermann had no such kinship with Dan Abrams, the lawyer and former MSNBC executive who hosted Verdict, the program that followed Countdown. In fact, Olbermann’s dislike of Abrams was so intense that he refused to provide Abrams with a “throw,” that brief chat as the audience is passed, it is hoped, from one block of programming to another. Sometimes there would be up to five seconds of dead air between their shows.
With Olbermann’s urging, Maddow, who had never even used a TelePrompTer before February, began guest-hosting Countdown last year, and soon Olbermann was pressuring Phil Griffin, his friend and producer, to give her Abrams’s slot. In July, Griffin told the Times he planned to give Maddow a show when the opportunity arose. “And a month later, when [Griffin] was promoted to president,” Olbermann says, “he did.”
He may not have had much of a choice. According to MSNBC insiders, as Olbermann’s ratings have risen, so has his level of power at MSNBC. “Phil Griffin didn’t hire Rachel,” says one person who works at the network. “He didn’t want to hire Rachel. Keith hired Rachel.” Olbermann plays down his involvement: “It was nothing more sophisticated than being the person who nominated her for membership in the club.” But he was the one who broke the news of Maddow’s show on August 19, on the liberal Website Daily Kos, writing coyly, “Yes, I had something to do with it.”
Abrams, who is now MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent, says that he considers Maddow’s hiring to be the right decision for the network. But sources say he was privately steaming. “Dan Abrams is not the most sensitive guy,” one MSNBC source says. “But he was like, ‘What the fuck?’ ”
If Maddow knows about any of the internal politics surrounding her hiring, she won’t say. “I am, on purpose, naïve about these things,” she says, stirring her Manhattan at the St. Regis bar.
Purposeful naïveté is something Maddow finds useful. She also doesn’t watch cable news shows—ever. She’s never seen Hannity & Colmes, or Larry King, or The O’Reilly Factor. Until recently, she and Mikula didn’t even own a television. One was recently acquired for their New York apartment, but it’s “mostly for Susan,” she says.
Most people would obsess over the competition—Olbermann’s fixation with Bill O’Reilly ignited his career. But Maddow says she doesn’t want to absorb any “homogenizing influences.” She recognizes that part of her on-air charm comes from being unschooled enough to take risks: to explain Dada, or spend 22 seconds reading from John Hodgman’s book, or lavish airtime on Zimbabwe’s new $10 trillion bill. She gets her information mostly from the Internet, then picks what she thinks is interesting.